Will the real TK stand up?

It’s getting so that understanding the budgetary machinations of Transitional Kindergarten requires a master’s degree, or maybe a Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Pin.

In the month since Gov. Brown released his 2012-13 budget plan and recommended canceling Transitional Kindergarten (TK), supporters have found it hard to keep track of what the administration is proposing and where the savings would come from.

They were further confounded yesterday, when the State Legislative Analyst’s Office released its review of the governor’s education budget. Although the LAO seconded the governor’s call to eliminate funding for TK, it seemed to contradict some of the administration’s figures. (See John Fensterwald’s article today for the LAO’s review of the entire education budget proposal).

“At this point, it seems like the Department of Finance is making it up as they go along; we’ve had three different versions of the program in the last four weeks,” said State Senator Joe Simitian.

His bill, SB 1381, which the Legislature passed in 2010, moved up the entry age for kindergarten to September 1 from December 1, phasing it in over three years beginning next fall. It also created the TK program for the children who turn five during that three-month period and are no longer eligible for kindergarten. Instead, they would get TK one year and regular kindergarten the next.

By keeping the age change but eliminating funding for TK, Gov. Brown estimates the state will save about $224 million in ADA dollars next year in reduced kindergarten enrollment. When Sen. Simitian pointed out at a legislative hearing a few weeks ago that districts would still get the same amount of money for another year under the declining enrollment program, a Finance Department official said that had been factored in. Not so, according to yesterday’s LAO report. It said the Legislature would also have to “make a corresponding change to the ‘declining enrollment’ adjustment.” In other words, eliminate that, too.

Trailing language

The administration has been similarly vague on the options for those four-year-olds whose families first thought they’d be going to kindergarten, then to Transitional Kindergarten. As we reported here, at that same legislative hearing in January, Finance Department officials initially said that districts could provide TK, but wouldn’t receive any state funds to pay for it. Then they said the state would provide ADA funds once the children turned five.

Sen. Simitian again asked for clarification and it came last week in the budget trailer language, which once again left Sen. Simitian perlexed. It keeps the age cut-off dates, but lets individual districts decide if they want to run Transitional Kindergarten programs. Then the trailer bill says something that both Sen. Simitian and the group Preschool California suspect the administration never intended. It allows school districts to “admit to a kindergarten at the beginning of the school year, a child having attained the age of five years at any time during the school year with the approval of the parent or guardian.”

It also apparently makes the districts eligible for ADA funds even for the four-year olds. That’s how it seemed to Sen. Simitian, and that’s how it appeared to the Legislative Counsel when he asked that office for an interpretation.

According to Preschool California, more than 100 school districts have either started TK pilot programs on their own or indicated that they plan to launch them in the fall despite the governor’s proposal. At least one district, San Francisco Unified, told parents not to bother enrolling their children for TK, because there won’t be a program without state funding.

That could create unequal access to education for children, with one district offering a version of TK while a neighboring district does not. If the latter district is low-income, then there may be an equal protection violation. At the very least, said Sen. Simitian, it’s going to create chaos and anxiety up and down the state.

“I don’t mean to say this with attitude, but I’ve got so much frustration at this point,” said the senator. The Legislature already debated and approved the bill, “and now the administration is trying to revisit the issue through the budget process. That’s completely inappropriate,” said Sen. Simitian, adding that if the governor wants to change policy, he should introduce a bill like everyone else.

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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